HC Deb 19 October 1988 vol 138 cc889-92 3.30 pm
Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton) (by private notice)

To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement on the dismissal of and disciplinary action against trade unionists at GCHQ.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. William Waldegrave)

Staff at GCHQ are permitted by their conditions of service to belong only to a departmental staff association approved by the director. The reasons for this were explained to the House by my right hon. and learned Friend on 25 January 1984. Every effort has been made since to accommodate the tiny minority who did not accept the new terms of service, including a lengthy search for other jobs or the offer of compensation. A number have indeed accepted alternative jobs. Our action now follows our assessment that nothing further realistically can be done to find alternative employment. Even at this late stage we would urge those who have refused the terms of service to change their minds and to stay at GCHQ. But to do nothing would be grossly unfair to the 99 per cent. of staff who accepted the new terms of service.

Mr. Kaufman

Is it not ironic that the Foreign Secretary is not here to answer this question today—[HON. MEMBERS: "Why?"]—because he is in attendance on the Queen in Spain, a country rightly praised for getting rid of a Right-wing regime that persecuted trade unionists?

While a British Government have for the first time sacked people for being members of a trade union, is it not a fact that in Britain a long string of proved traitors have been members, not of a free trade union, but of the Cambridge union? For example, is it not disgraceful that Mr. Brian Johnson is being sacked after being employed for 32 years at GCHQ, having given longer and more loyal service to his country than the Prime Minister or any other member of the Government? How can the Government justify the further disciplinary proceedings that are threatened against Mr. Clive Lloyd and others when they have already been made to pay fines? This kind of double jeopardy is another mark of the authoritarian state.

Why have the Government not accepted the GCHQ unions' long-standing offer to negotiate a no-strike deal, to divorce national pay questions from issues involving GCHQ and to accept security vetting of officials involved in bargaining at GCHQ?

When visiting Poland, would it not be utterly hypocritical for the Prime Minister to force her company on Lech Walesa, who is fighting for free and independent trade unions in Poland, while she is trampling on free and independent trade unions in Britain?

Mr. Waldegrave

The right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) bases his argument, perhaps characteristically, on a mixture of rather cheap debating points and mistakes.

The first mistake is the belief that there is anything unusual in having special terms of service in security installations in this country or in any other. If the right hon. Gentleman looks more carefully at the practices in other countries he will find that there is nothing unusual about those terms.

The right hon. Gentleman's second mistake is that we have not, at any point, doubted the loyalty of the people at GCHQ. The proof of that is that, even at this late hour, we would prefer those involved to stay there. It was the national trade union leaders who used GCHQ as a football in disputes that were nothing to do with that installation. They knew that the population at large were not inconvenienced by those disputes, and they knew also that only senior Ministers and senior officials knew how much damage had been done. They brought this on their own heads.

I am happy to say that GCHQ is now working very well indeed and that 99 per cent. and more of the people there have accepted the terms of service.

Sir Peter Blaker (Blackpool, South)

Does not the effectiveness of GCHQ depend upon uninterrupted operation? Am I right in recalling that between 1979 and 1981 the number of man days lost through strikes at GCHQ—many of them called on issues totally unrelated to it—was about 10,000? Does not that figure provide a powerful endorsement of the Government's policies?

Mr. Waldegrave

My right hon. Friend is right. The number of hours lost at GCHQ during that period was about the figure that he mentioned. Those lost hours meant that, at key moments, that installation, which must run all the time if it is to protect our security, was working on a part-time basis. No responsible Government could possibly have put up with that.

Mr. James Wallace (Orkney and Shetland)

By their actions, do not the Government diminish the role of GCHQ by undermining from within the very liberties that GCHQ and the other security services are intended to defend?

Mr. Waldegrave

That is a nonsensical argument. As the hon. Gentleman may or may not know, others involved in security have similar terms of service. The importance of GCHQ to the nation is second to no other security institution. It is not possible to allow it to be misused for arguments in which it has no part, and that was the situation that we faced when we came to power.

Sir Geoffrey Finsberg (Hampstead and Highgate)

As the courts of this country and the European Court of Human Rights have made it clear that the Government have acted correctly in all these matters, will my hon. Friend say why it has taken so long to take this final step, which many of us believe is overdue?

Mr. Waldegrave

My hon. Friend is right. The lawfulness of our action has been confirmed by our courts, and at the European Court of Human Rights. It has taken so long because we have tried very hard to find alternative jobs for the people involved. Now we have to say that, realistically, there are no alternative jobs available. It is increasingly unfair to the great majority who have accepted the terms of service to leave a small minority operating without terms of service and without accepting what their colleagues have accepted.

Mr. Terry Davis (Birmingham, Hodge Hill)

If the Minister is blaming national trade union leaders, why is he sacking individual trade unionists?

Mr. Waldegrave

That seems to be a curious question. The people are being dismissed from GCHQ because they are in breach of the terms and conditions of their service, and for no other reason.

Mr. Ivan Lawrence (Burton)

In how many other countries, Socialist or otherwise, do the security and intelligence establishments permit either a trade union or the right to strike?

Mr. Waldegrave

I believe that my hon. and learned Friend would find that the number is very small. I know of none.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Is the Minister aware that those who are now being victimised are to be congratulated on defending the principles of British democracy and fair play against an authoritarian Government? Now that the Government, at long last, have lost the Spycatcher case in the courts, when will they learn the basic principle that people have a democratic right to belong to a trade union? When will the Government stop penalising people who want to exercise that right?

Mr. Waldegrave

I must not be drawn on to Spycatcher, but clearly the hon. Gentleman has not read the judgment. He will find it a little different from what he expects. The reason why we had to take action, unwelcome though it is, has been clearly set before the House and supported by it. I do not apologise for it.

Mr. Tony Baldry (Banbury)

Does my hon. Friend recall that during the last Parliament, when the Employment Select Committee investigated this matter, national Civil Service trade union leaders were unprepared to give an undertaking that civil servants who continued at GCHQ would not continue to disrupt the activities of that organisation?

Mr. Waldegrave

There was no undertaking to accept a no-strike agreement at GCHQ. When the subject was raised as a possibility, it was instantly repudiated by two of the unions concerned. What is more, it would have been ironic if it had not been, because the TUC is expelling trade unions which have been seeking to make no-strike deals.

Dr. John Reid (Motherwell, North)

As the Minister has obviously given great consideration to the relationship between the undermining of security and trade union membership, can he tell the House and those who are listening how many traitors who have been convicted since 1945 for treacherously undermining our security were members of a trade union?

Mr. Waldegrave

There is no connection between membership of a trade union and people's loyalty to this country. [Interruption.]If there is a connection, it was the misuse of the strike weapon by national trade union leaders who did not know, and could not know, what they were doing by so interrupting the work of GCHQ as gravely to damage our security. That is what was damaging our security. I emphasise again the point that Opposition Members have missed from the beginning to the end of this controversy, which is that we have never at any time doubted the loyalty of individual people to this country. What has been doubted is the willingness of the national trade unions involved to understand the importance of that institution.

Sir John Stokes (Halesowen and Stourbridge)

Is my hon. Friend aware that the public at large simply will not be able to understand all the fuss that the Opposition are making about this dispute? The dispute is wholly bogus, the Government's action is perfectly reasonable, and it is about time the whole matter was settled.

Mr. Waldegrave

Not for the first time, my hon Friend has encapsulated good sense in the House.

Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North)

Who is next?

Mr. Waldegrave

If the hon. Gentleman means by that lapidary question is there any intention to extend such a ban outside those involved in security, the answer is that there is no such intention. What is more, if there were, I doubt whether it would be upheld by the courts. It is because these people are involved in security that the courts have upheld the Government's position.

Mr. Derek Conway (Shrewsbury and Atcham)

Despite the wringing of hands by Labour Members—[Laughter.]—and despite their giggling, will my hon. Friend undertake to explain to the widest general public that the TUC targeted GCHQ during its day of action, and that such an irresponsible act on its part shows that it is wholly unconcerned for British security and is the action of a dying dinosaur, which should be suitably ignored?

Mr. Waldegrave

My hon. Friend is right. That was extremely irresponsible and was done deliberately, because only senior officials and Ministers knew the damage that was being done. It was a cheap action for the trade unions to take and grossly irresponsible. All the consequences have flowed from that.

Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington)

Who is damaging national security—the trade unionist who feels that he must take industrial action because he has a grievance, or the Tory Member who writes a book setting out in complex detail every aspect of GCHQ's operations? Who is being disloyal?

Mr. Waldegrave

I shall not get involved in the hon. Gentleman's characteristic conspiracy theories. I know for a fact that our security was damaged by interruptions at GCHQ and that no Government could have stood by and done nothing about that. I know, too, as do hon. Members on the Opposition Front Bench, that if they had been in the same position they would have acted in the same way.

Mr. Bill Walker (Tayside, North)

Is my hon. Friend aware that the individuals who were named and who have been working all these years at GCHQ worked there when I represented them as a member of a trade union looking after their interests? At that time it was understood that GCHQ and the Air Ministry, where I worked, would never be included in industrial action because if they were the Government of the day, regardless of their colour, would change the rules because that work could not be interrupted. That is exactly what has happened. The rules have been changed, and trade union leaders knew from the beginning what would happen.

Mr. Waldegrave

My hon. Friend is right. This is an area, and it is not alone in modern Britain, where, because unspoken conventions have been breached, different steps have had to be taken. What my hon. Friend—who knows a great deal more about it than does the right hon. Member for Gorton—has said is correct.